Former Florida Rep. Joe Harding (R)Photo: Campaign Photo
Former Florida State Representative Joseph Harding (right) could go to jail for a long time after pleading guilty to committing fraud to obtain $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funds.
Harding is perhaps best known as the author of Florida’s infamous Don’t Say Gay Bill, which banned and restricted discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in younger classes. in the older classes. LGBTQ+ advocates said the law would effectively ban LGBTQ+ discussions, keep teachers in the closet, and deprive LGBTQ+ students of much-needed support outside of their homes. Proponents of the bill have said anyone who opposes it is a paedophile.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) finds that Harding used “materially false and fraudulent claims, representations, and promises, and in order to execute such scheme, caused the transmission of communications by wire in interstate commerce” to defraud the Small Business Administration (SBA) out of money. The Economic Disaster Loan Program, administered by the SBA, was intended to help small businesses avoid laying off workers during the early days of the pandemic.
He allegedly applied for loans using the names of “dormant business entities”, made fake bank statements and used money “from illegal activities”.
He allegedly falsely claimed that one such company, The Vak Shak Inc., had four employees and earned $420,000 in the year prior to its December 2020 disaster relief application. In fact, the company had no business activity in 2019 or 2020. In February 2021, Harding admitted to federal investigators that he lied on the application.
According to court documents, he paid the SBA $149,000 in restitution in 2021.
Harding resigned from the Florida House of Representatives in December when he was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of wire fraud, money laundering and misrepresentation. He has now pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, money laundering and misrepresentation.
“By pleading guilty, the defendant acknowledges that if this case proceeds to trial, the government would present evidence to support the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” the plea agreement reads.
The charges carry a sentence of up to 35 years in prison. Harding has a sentencing hearing scheduled for July 25 in federal court in Gainesville, Florida.
Harding’s brother-in-law, Patrick Parker Walsh, was sentenced to five and a half years in jail after pleading guilty to a charge of wire fraud and money laundering after his own scheme to fraudulently take COVID relief funds. He was also ordered to repay the SBA $7.8 million in damages.